“Grandma, tell me about the Great Cyber War. What was it like?”
“Well, dear, on top of hill were the well-armed, but rapidly depleting mainstream media corps defending their turf to the death, or at least until deadline.
“Assaulting the outskirts of parliament were we brave bloggers, dressed only in our pyjamas, fuelled on skim lattes and clicking on petitions until our index fingers blistered. It was ugly, dear.”
After a week of pitched battles in “cyberspace”, it was interesting to see the esteemed host of Media Watch, Jonathon Holmes, bifurcate the debate over coverage of the Prime Minister’s speech into the old journalist-versus-blogger meme.
Essentially, Jonathon’s point was that social media is dominated by left-leaning, cultural intelligentsia who are just as out of touch with the “ordinary people” and just as unrepresentative of the general voting population as the press gallery they rush to condemn.
Well, yes, but who is arguing that? My reading of fellow blogger Tim Dunlop’s original piece in The Drum was that now anyone can watch news break in real time from raw sources, the role of journalist as gatekeeper is becoming redundant. (Note, this does NOT mean journalists are becoming redundant, but that their roles are changing).
Social media tools like Twitter, Blogger, WordPress and Facebook allow anyone – from boiler-suited vegan student to snarly libertarian to spotty Young Liberal fogy – to publish their own analysis of political events in real time.
Yes, much of this – probably 99 per cent of it – is shallow, self-serving and poorly written. But the idea that there is some uniformity of view in the blogosphere is as misguided and clichéd as the commonly heard complaint that the ABC, say, is a nest of lefties.
As an aside, the assumption in Holmes’ analysis – common in defences of legacy media – is that this is about the mainstream professional versus the social amateur or that bloggers live under the illusion that they can replace full-time journalists, a point dealt with by US journalism professor Jay Rosen.
“Ask bloggers why they blog and they might say ‘because big media sucks!’, Rosen wrote last year. “But they will almost never say: ‘I am your replacement’. This fantasy of replacement comes almost exclusively from the journalist’s side, typically connected to fears for a lost business model.”
Back to this week’s events, Jonathon’s other point was that while journalists in Canberra don’t get out much, they do get to speak regularly to backbench politicians, who get a much less rarefied view of the world from electorates concerned more about electricity bills than misogyny.
“The idea that the acclaim of the Twittersphere represents ‘ordinary people’, and the cynicism of the gallery does not, may well prove no more than an exercise in wishful thinking,” Holmes wrote.
Again, no-one is arguing this. What we are saying is that there is more than one way of analysing the events out of Canberra. The press gallery prides itself on its ability to keep its distance and think independently. Yet the almost completely uniform gallery interpretation of Gillard’s speech betrayed a groupthink that suggested that they are either too close to the story or need to read more widely.
That does not mean that the likes of Dunlop and myself or anyone has any better idea of what went on. But news judgment is a funny thing. While context and detail and proximity are important, sometimes the details can obscure the news.
That so many people – not just on Twitter – but in the wider community feel disquiet over the level of gender-inspired invective levelled at the prime minister IS a real political issue. And if it is not resonating beyond Balmain or Brunswick, as Holmes suggests, perhaps that is because of the way media treats the issue.
Bernard Keane in Crikey, like Holmes another respected and astute commentator, inadvertently captured the point in his argument that social media fury at the press gallery might be misplaced.
“The press gallery doesn’t see its job as analysing the social significance of politics,” he wrote. “Its focus is on political tactics — what works politically, what doesn’t, what impact political performances will have on the functionality of the government in the short term and, over the longer term, its prospects for re-election.”
Well, actually, that may be the problem. The disenchantment with institutionalised politics and the growth of social movements like Occupy, GetUp and Destroy the Joint suggest existing political parties and the media rituals that attend to them are close to exhausted. Politicians and media need conflict, but they increasingly choose their turf based on what suits them, not on what people are talking about.
To the point that the gallery better understands the context of Tuesday’s events, the fact is the public knows how the game works. We understood that Slipper’s appointment as Speaker was a cynical and desperate move to retain power. We can see that for all its huffing and puffing over Craig Thomson, the Opposition will court him for his vote.
It is the “game” of politics that obsesses the press gallery – the constant polling, the insider debates about how issues are “playing out”, the constant speculation over leadership. We can see all this as clearly as the gallery. But we don’t care. It has no meaning to us because it has no connection to anything we consider to be real or important.
Gillard, in her passionate speech, did touch on something that felt real and meaningful to many, many people – women and men. It brought real politics – the politics that people talk about around the dining table or in the work lunchroom or at the sports club – back into parliament.